Limestone is one of Malta's few natural resources. From our magnificent Stone Age temples, to the building of the impressive fortifications of Valletta and Mdina, it has always been a vital element in the architectural heritage of our nation. The colour, texture and patina of the local stone are integral features of our urban and rural landscapes.
Maltese limestone has shaped the architecture of the islands. In the words of architect Quentin Hughes, the "abundant good building stone... has produced a type of building which seems very different from neighbouring Sicily only 60 miles to the north... I feel that Maltese masonry and Maltese architecture are synonymous."
Unfortunately, the demolition of countless buildings still in perfectly good condition, built in local stone, has become the order of the day. The construction industry has gone into overdrive. Everywhere you look, cranes and other huge bits of machinery are being brought in to smash tonnes of solid limestone blocks to the ground, and then cart them off, some still whole but many broken or crushed, to tip them on a dumping site.
In recent years, our waste sites have swelled to hideous proportions due to the large quantity of stone waste. Around 80 per cent of the total waste generated in Malta consists of excavation, construction and demolition waste, with the bulk of this arising from excavation.
This would be the squandering of natural resources even if the supply of stone was unlimited. In truth, limestone is a limited resource, and it is sheer madness to be throwing it away so carelessly. It is predicted that at current rates of use, and with quarrying restricted to specific zones for reasons of environmental or social impact and conflicts of land use, there is only enough permitted limestone available to last around 30 years.
Today, developers are often choosing to construct their buildings, particularly in large-scale developments, using alternative materials such as concrete rather than traditional stone blocks. Tomorrow, at this rate, there will be little choice.
It is the duty of the Government to try to ensure that non-renewable natural resources are used sustainably. Measures to promote the re-use of stone have been under discussion for some years, but nothing has been done about it.
The Minerals Subject Plan of 2003 clearly supports the need to recycle construction, demolition and quarry waste. It highlights the scarcity of stone, our primary mineral resource, and one of its stated objectives is to "introduce the principle of sustainability in all stages of minerals related development". In the case of limestone, this objective has not been transformed from words into reality.
In 2006 the National Commission for Sustainable Development stated that "incentives to recycle stone and disincentives associated with the use of new stone should be explored", and that "incentives should be provided so that good stone that is quarried on site and excavated material from construction, especially on large projects, can be used instead of being dumped. Moreover, recycling of materials from demolished buildings should also be encouraged through the application of the 'polluter pays' principle."
In the past, houses were often built using the stone excavated from the site itself, using the space as a cellar, such as in Valletta, and many of the fortifications of the city were built using stone excavated from the surrounding ditches.
Clearly, not every site yields stone suitable for building, but some sites do and this potential will not be realised until plots are excavated using methods which encourage the resulting stone to be re-used, rather than dumped.
Last November, the Kamra tal-Periti published a position paper 'The Urban Challenge: Our Quality of Life and the Built Environment', which says that "the nation needs to take stock of its main construction resource: stone. Our stone is to this day widely used, misused and way too often abused. Inexplicably still the cheapest building material available to us, its worth is not yet appreciated".
The Government, together with Mepa and the Malta Resources Authority, has the duty to ensure that the non-renewable resources of the country are conserved and managed. Measures to promote and assist the recycling and re-use of stone must be put into place without further delay. It is quite pointless for people to spend time preparing strategies, plans and reports if the results of their efforts are not taken into account.
Petra Bianchi is director of Din l-Art Ħelwa.